Joy of Gardening
Joy of Gardening
Out to Grass… and Grooving
by Barney Bardsley
I live in the city, but I pretend that I don’t. There is enough to persuade me, in this North East corner of Leeds, that the countryside is mine: a leafy local wood, a tangled treasure of a back garden and a beaten-up allotment, a mile or so up the road. Meanwhile, my daughter, fifteen, is on a bus route straight into town the Other Way – where the big bad shops are, the music venues and the action. Go groove, my child. Just put me out to grass, before you leave.
It is mighty hot, as I write this (forgive me if you are reading it in the rain), and I am outside, of course. At home – neglecting all duties of a studious or “housewifely” nature, and doing things the Lovin’ Spoonful way. What a day it is, indeed, for a daydream… The aforementioned grass is growing to my ankles in front of me, along with dandelions, weeds and fat juicy leaves of every description. My garden is a cheerful scrummage of rambling giants: bamboo, honeysuckle, ancient rose bushes, dogwood and blowsy hollyhocks. I should be tidier with my borders, but I am not. The birds love it and so do I.
Hang on, though. This is not paradise, or anything like it. I live on an urban estate. Power drills, troublesome tenants down the road. Dodgy deals in cars around the corner after dark. Teenagers on tiny motorised scooters burning up the highway at 20 mph. Rock ‘n roll, boys. Poot poot poot. And now my neighbour has flung open her back door and is singing along loudly – and very badly – to Terry Wogan’s breakfast show. Weekday mornings on Radio Two – a crime against humanity of sizeable proportions.
“Enthusiastic wave of sowing”
Still, I am lucky. I have learned to relish the silences where they fall. And if I am strung out, I do as a friend once advised, and “tend the earth”. (If you have no garden, do as my Greek teacher counsels, and “grow things on the palms of your hands” – or, failing that, the nearest available window sill.) It works – and it’s fun.
For a few weeks now I have been the proud owner of a new mini greenhouse – one of those plastic jobs from B&Q – for outside the back door. They take up little space, and are cheap, sturdy and effective. The first wave of enthusiastic sowing is over: lettuce, tomatoes, purple sprouting broccoli, courgettes and climbing beans. That was the easy bit. Now I have a rash of eager and leggy seedlings busting out all over, wanting to be thinned out or planted in the ground right NOW. It’s like running a crèche, only without the noise and nappies. They are mute, these green leafy babies, but strangely insistent.
Meanwhile, a bewilderment of open seed packets is scattered in the bowl in front of me. I face the perennial predicament of successional sowing – planting stuff at regular intervals, to keep a turnover of crops going throughout the summer. This is not my forte. I go off message too easily and start dreaming of picnics and chilled white sparkling, instead. But I have vowed to be more productive this year, as well as decorative. Today then, re-potting and more sowing: a few Cos lettuce, some French beans (Borlotti “Firetongue”, red and passionate) and maybe some “Romanesco” – a handsome, pointy, pale green cross between cauliflower and broccoli. After that, a whole lot of staring into space.
Up at the other place – the allotment – things proceed in their usual ramshackle, raunchy kind of a way. We are sliding now from spring into high summer, nature’s voice lifting from a whisper to a full-throated shout. The broad beans have flowered, and the strawberries are poised to ripen. The raspberries – summer “Jewel” and autumn “Heritage” are scrambling into leaf and flower after a cold, slow start. Early potatoes are pushing through the soil, even where the little buggers aren’t supposed to. The couch grass is invading all my beds, and the weeds are taking over. It’s cheerful chaos. Up by the shed, the tadpoles in my pond have astonished themselves, and me, as usual, by turning into tiny frogs.
The worst thing about gardening is the heavy stuff – the heaving of bags of compost or hardcore, the digging and rotovating, muck spreading and mulching. But top of the evils for me, is strimming. I put it off as much as I can, but up here on the allotment it is vital – or your cherished plot will turn into a meadow overnight. The allotment strimmers are petrol-fed and massive. I only have to look at them and I feel like a lie-down under a shady tree. But last week, I did it – rather in the way I used to cut my daughter’s hair when she was a toddler, shaved close to the bone at erratic intervals, with big unmanageable tufts in between. I blame the tools. Scissors and strimmers: they are mighty unreliable.
“A world suspended in animation”
Anyway, dreaming is the real thing for outdoors. And no better time for this than the morning. I go early to the local wood, when there are just a few dog walkers ambling about, and the allotment, when other eager gardeners are off doing what I should be doing – earning a living. There are special moments, usually in late spring and early summer, but at other times of the year too, when the world is suspended in animation. Everything is still. The air is sweet – the sun veiled but warm.
And the struggle subsides. I had a moment like that earlier today. Philip Larkin’s lines popped into my head:
The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said / The recent buds relax and spread.
His poem ‘The Trees’ celebrates spring, but also, much more than that, it is a reverie of hope and renewal. Larkin was a notorious old misery – and yet even he is seduced here by the power of the green. He ends his poem “Begin afresh…” And that is what nature does for you, it’ll let you dream, but it sure won’t let you wallow.
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray